Wednesday, July 8, 2015

When we need everyone at the table

Imagine you are part of a movement to dismantle mass incarceration, in part through changing the prison-industrial system by which profits are made when more people are in jail. Imagine that representatives of this very prison-industrial system seek to join your cause. Will you let them stay?

Imagine you are part a community which wants to build supportive relationships across divisions of race and class. You want everybody to have a place in your community, a place to share their experiences and feelings. Imagine someone comes into your space spouting divisions of race and class. Will you let them stay?


About 10 folks in my organization, as a creative protest measure, bought one share each in the largest for-profit prison company in the US. Being shareholders, they attend the shareholder meeting every year to advocate for better ways, different profit incentives, various reforms. There may not be any visible results yet, but they are witnessing to a different way.

Meanwhile, some of the board members of the prison company have taken an interest in the efforts of my organization, the way they seek to support folks coming home from prison. They have taken an interest in our support groups, and our house for guys who've been recently incarcerated, and the jobs and education programs to which we are connected. They have given donations. They have come to visit. One may speak at our fundraiser.

The director of our organization acknowledged the dissonance. "Yes, it's goofy," she said. "It's an uncomfortable reality. When they first started giving us money, we weren't sure what to do. But then we thought if we didn't want to accept dirty money, whose money could we accept?

"Besides," she added, "we believe we need everyone at the table."

Yes. We can only break down systems of injustice if everyone is on board. Everyone. And that means that we have to be willing to engage with folks who disagree with us, who threaten our cause, with whom our relationship is complicated or goofy.

Because it's relationships and transformed hearts that we're after--not just new laws that leave old walls and divisions in place.


Photo by Jim Champion

In my internship, we have meetings called "Freedom Circles," which are dangerous things. Like an AA meeting or a summer camp sharing circle, the meetings start off with this week's leader reading or reflecting on a particular topic, and then there are 45 minutes before us in which anyone may speak. Which is the beauty, and the danger.

Because everyone is welcome at the table, and everyone has a voice.

Last week "everyone" included someone who was frustrated, someone who was angry, someone who was lonely, someone who felt wronged by the group. There we were, all of us broken together in the room, and the time was open before us, free for the seizing.

Several people shared, some speaking with candor and honesty, some with anger and walls, some with repetitive phrases that made me wonder whether this meeting had a point. There are days where the sharing is deep and succinct and profound, where someone gives us a window into her past, where someone acknowledges the pain he has caused others, where someone makes a new connection about her feelings of abandonment that have led to addiction, where someone admits he doesn't know how to fix his relationship.

This was not that day. A few folks shared. They mostly talked too long. They mostly exuded frustration and anger. After each person, we chorused "Thanks for sharing," even though saying it felt a bit disingenuous. After one angry outburst, I noticed sidelong glances and folks uncomfortably shifting in their seats.

The leader took it all in stride. Later, he would tell me, "that meeting went exactly how it was supposed to go." He proceeded with the meeting, explaining that we were all about to share the ritual of communion. He broke half of a hamburger bun and held up a punch cup half full of grape juice, then began passing them around the room, even as some of the other members of the circle continued looking around, unsettled, uncertain. I noticed a certain tension in my chest.

After a hesitating start, a woman offered the cup to her neighbor, saying, "This cup was given so that you may know that even though you are broken, you are not beyond God's love." Just as the reality of those words began to flood into all of us, the leader had begun singing. "Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken...bind us together in love." A few of us joined in, and as we sang and shared and ate, something happened.

My breathing slowed and I turned just in time to see a man who had earlier been shaking his head at his neighbor in disgust and frustration, offering to him the bread and the cup. This was, for both of them, their first time sharing communion in our group. "The body of Christ and the blood of Christ, given for you," the man said as his neighbor took a piece. The neighbor then turned to me. I knew he was angry at me for an earlier miscommunication. But he pushed the cup to me and said simply, "The body and blood of Christ."


I thought how neither of us deserved this moment. None of us deserved to be at this table.

The leader closed in prayer, and people began filing out. I stood to talk to my neighbor, apologizing for hurting him. He accepted my apology. By this time the rest of the folks had left, and I wondered if some of them had been put off by the halting meeting.

I hope not.

Because to dismantle mass incarceration, we need everyone at the table. To build true community, we need to welcome everyone to the table, broken people included. And as Jesus reminded me that night, communion is holy because it reminds us that we are all sitting at a table only by mercy--you, and me, and the one with the angry outburst, and the one with only frustration in her heart, and whoever else walks in the door tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment